Chapter 5 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Caesar’s fortunes after he sailed for Graecia are known to all, but at the time, we heard only rumors: Caesar had been badly defeated at Dyrrhachium; he had disguised himself as a slave and returned to Italia; he had been victorious at Pharsalus; he had been killed in the fighting at Alexandria. This last rumor was widely believed because his correspondence, usually so copious, completely ceased. Nor did Caesar send periodic dispatches as he had during the war in Gallia, for he deemed it an affront to the Republic to boast of victories over Roman citizens. Thus we did not hear unequivocal news of Pompeius Magnus’ death until long after Caesar’s old friend fled Pharsalus in defeat, and sailed to Alexandria to seek aid. Magnus hardly expected to be struck down and beheaded by the faithless Aegyptians, who enraged Caesar by depriving him of the chance to offer clemency to the older man, his only rival as a general.
Italia was unstable, in constant expectation of an invasion by the Pompeian forces. Marcus Antonius, Caesar’s Master of the Horse, had the governorship of Italia, and grew increasingly dissolute, parading about dressed as Hercules, and staggering drunkenly through the Forum. The streets of Roma once again became battle-grounds, as gangs tried to force through laws on debt remission, and the Senate passed Ultimate Decrees. Antonius used Roman legionaries to massacre rioters in the Forum; then lost control of the men, who grew mutinous when they received neither pay nor permission to sack and loot Italian cities.
During this period of danger, Dru and I suspended all normal city duty except for the early-morning purchase of necessities, for which we used our cached savings. Goat-herding outside the walls became a desirable assignment, for it gave a respite from the dark. Our houses grew crowded with sisters taking the sun in the courtyards. Cutting off her long braid, Theodora volunteered to join Dru for upside missions to gather news, and distinguished herself for bravery. It was she who told us of Caesar’s return.
“The Ninth and Tenth legions decided to march on Roma, and they have massed outside the Porta Capena,” she reported. “They thought they had the upper hand, for Caesar needs them in order to face Cato in Africa. He went to speak with them, and they demanded to be discharged, expecting to wring extra pay from him in exchange for their support. But he addressed them as ‘Citizens’ and said they were free to go. They were shocked, and many began to weep!”
Anna asked, “Why is it so dreadful to be called a Citizen? Shouldn’t they be proud?”
“It meant that they were no longer Caesar’s men, no longer soldiers,” replied Theodora. “He gave them to understand that they were no more to him than any other men of Roma! By the time he was through with them, they were begging to be taken to Africa.”
The news was not all bad, for the diminution of the senatorial class meant a great upheaval in the real estate market in Roma. Theodora and Laelia advised us on several fine houses for sale, which they thought could be accessed from the tunnels, with a little work. It was then that Amata surprised me with the news of a dream vision in which the Goddess favored one of these properties, a small but costly house below the Palatine, facing the Circus Maximus. I was dubious about buying in such a wealthy and conspicuous area, but when I used my token, Amata’s choice was confirmed.
“The boy in my dream-story will live nearby,” Amata declared. “Perhaps that is where I shall meet him.” Dru was in favor of the purchase too, so I reluctantly gave my permission.
Gaius Julius Caesar to Lucia, Servant of the Goddess, greetings. Congratulate me, for I have reached the moon. Magnus’ sons have fled to Hispania together with my old legate from Gallia, Labienus. Never did a man disappoint me so much as Labienus when he betrayed me to join Magnus. He believes himself my equal, though he was forced to yield to me at Pharsalus, Ruspina and now Thapsus.
Cato, who devoted himself to my destruction, has died by his own hand.
Cicero will doubtless lament that I have ruined the Republic, but on the contrary, I have great plans for its improvement.
At last I am a father again, and though I have not yet recognized the boy, he is of royal blood, the product of my union with Cleopatra of Aegyptus. I am bringing her and little Ptolemaeus to Roma, and I am anxious that you should meet her, Lucia, for like you, she is a woman of learning.
I have vowed to mint a golden coin with the portrait of Vesta upon my return, as a pledge of gratitude. May your Goddess continue to smile upon me. Pray on my behalf, Lucia, and ask her to preserve me from the Sacred Disease, which afflicts me more often now. I hope to find you in good health, my light, and I beg you to show your face to the sun.
The celebrations upon Caesar’s homecoming were like nothing ever seen in Roma. He was awarded not one, but four Triumphal parades. Vercingetorix, who had languished in prison for six years, was marched in chains along the Sacred Way, to meet his death at last. Cleopatra’s rebel sister Arsinoe was displayed in the Aegyptian triumph, though the People wept to see the young woman in shackles, and Caesar was forced to spare her life. The third Triumph celebrated Caesar’s speedy victory over King Pharnaces of Pontus, and the parade float was emblazoned with a motto of his own composition: I came, I saw, I conquered. Last of all was the Triumph over the African king Juba, though the painted panels on the floats told a different story: it was in truth a victory over Cato and the remnant of Magnus’ faction.
I stood in the crowd, craning my neck but seeing very little, thanks to my short stature. I heard exclamations of wonder at the huge elephants in their silver and gilt harnesses, and the carts on which thousands of pounds of gold were displayed. Long ago, Caesar had given up the right to a Triumphal parade after his victories in Hispania, intent upon winning the consulship instead. Now his gamble was rewarded.
“Here, friend, stand in front of me and perhaps you can see more,” said a tall woman in a dark cloak who was blocking my view. She turned, smiling, and we both froze as we recognized each other. It was Andromeda, the body-slave of my childhood as a Vestal. She was a freedwoman now, grey-haired but still upright and vigorous. I saw her confusion; her lips began to form my name, but she was afraid to speak, lest she seem foolish. I was bound by my oath not to acknowledge her unless she truly recognized me, so I waited, smiling a little. The trumpets blared, and the crowd roared, as she silently drank in my face, and I hers.
At last she said, “You are Lucia.”
We joined hands, and Andromeda said, “Come. Let’s escape the crowd.” Indeed, it had been foolish of me to join the throng lining the Sacred Way in the Forum, just steps from the Vestal House, but fifteen years had passed since my execution, and I had long since ceased to worry about being recognized. Licinia was dead, and so was Sergia. The only remaining Vestal who had known me was Popilia, now the Chief Vestal, but I had no fear of meeting her among the People.
Andromeda brought me to the kitchen of the Vestal House, where she had a little cubicle of her own beside the pantry. We spoke in low voices, though the place was deserted: everyone was watching the Juba triumph.
“How can this be?” she asked in wondering tones. “Is it really you?”
“I am the Lucia you knew,” I told her, and we embraced. “I am sorry that I could not spare your grief. I survived my burial by the will of the Goddess, and this is a mystery I cannot reveal. But I was able to speak to Fabia, before she died, and I went to her funeral.”
“I miss her every day,” said Andromeda with feeling. “After her death, I worked for Licinia, and now Popilia employs me.” I heard the pride in her voice as she named Popilia her employer, rather than her mistress. “She is kind, and though it is forbidden, we sometimes speak of you, and the old days. She has become the Chief Vestal, and has her hands full supervising the young ones. There are the three C’s, Calpurnia, Cornelia, and Caecilia, plus an Aemilia and a Mucia. Those two are both sixteen, and mad for chariot racing and the gladiators.”
“The justice of the Goddess!” I remarked, and then grew serious. “Andromeda, after I was buried, I met and lived with many women who had once been slaves.”
“In the tunnels under the city?” Seeing my shocked expression, she added, “We servants of the Vestals have our own traditions, Lucia. It is said that long ago, two condemned Vestals, Floronia and Opimia, were rescued by their body-slaves, Nico and Dorcas. The Vestals lived in the tunnels to serve out their thirty years, by the will of the Goddess, and the slaves kept their secret.”
“That story is true,” I said. “And I wish you to know that you were my heroic Nico, and my savior Dorcas. In the Vestal House, I would have been lost without you, yet I was ungrateful. Did you long for your freedom all those years?”
“Of course, Lucia. No enslaved person desires that condition. Yet I was fortunate, for my legal mistress was the Goddess. I serve her still, but now it is my choice.” I bowed my head, accepting the truth of this, and Andromeda embraced me again. “I loved you,” she said. “When they took you away, I managed to rise from my pallet every day only because Fabia’s need was desperate. In time the pain eased, but it never left me. Until now!”
“Thanks be to Our Divine Lady for this gift,” I whispered. “I do not know if we shall meet again, Andromeda. But I will not forget.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Two lesser-known but fascinating stories about Caesar’s relationships deserve mention. First is the story of his lieutenant Labienus, a talented man who contributed greatly to Caesar’s success in Gallia. Once the civil war began, however, he switched to Pompeius’ side and commanded the ruinous cavalry charge at Philippi. Rather than accept Caesar’s pardon, he doggedly battled on until the end, in Hispania. The other story is of Cleopatra. Everyone knows of her association with Marcus Antonius, but she was also Caesar’s lover, bore his child, and spent a significant amount of time in Rome as his guest. We will learn more of her.